Uranium Atlas 2022: Nuclear power increases Europe's dependence on Russia

Uran Yellowcake
More than a third of the world’s enriched uranium comes from Russia. (Source: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS)

The new edition of the Uranium Atlas makes it clear that Europe will not be able to detach itself economically from Russia as long as the states continue to use electricity from nuclear power. After all, both Germany and other European states obtain a large part of the uranium needed for this purpose from mines in Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Uranium Atlas (in German), released last week, is published by the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) together with the Nuclear Free Future Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the environmental foundation Greenpeace and “.ausgestrahlt”. According to the report, around 40 per cent of European uranium imports come from Russia and Kazakhstan. Thus, in addition to fossil energy imports, European countries are significantly dependent on Russia.

If Europe really wants to become independent of Russia in the energy sector, “it must also stop its cooperation with Russia in the nuclear sector as soon as possible,” emphasised Uwe Witt, Senior Advisor for Climate Protection and Structural Change at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The Uranium Atlas highlights the regions of the world where uranium is mined, utilised or disposed of. The history of the uranium industry is mostly marked by exploitation and environmental destruction. In Africa, for example, foreign companies still control the mining of radioactive ore and leave behind contaminated land and a population with impaired health. In Canada and the USA, too, indigenous inhabitants are suffering from the uranium-related contamination of entire regions. Meanwhile, Central Europe is struggling with the legacy of uranium mining.

Nuclear power does not bring security of supplies

At the centre of the Russian uranium industry is the state-owned corporation Rosatom. Founded in 2007 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it reports directly to the Kremlin and holds stakes in uranium mines mainly in Kazakhstan, but also in Canada and the USA. With an annual output of 7122 tonnes of uranium, the company produces 15 percent of the global total and is the second-largest uranium producer in the world.

Angela Wolff, nuclear and energy policy officer at BUND, explains: “In the production of enriched uranium, which is needed for the operation of nuclear power plants, the dependency is even greater: more than a third of the global demand comes from the Russian state corporation.”

Eastern Europe in particular is also specifically dependent on Russian fuel elements because reactors in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia – and Finland – can only be operated with these hexagonal fuel rods. In total, there are 18 reactors of this type in the EU.

Russia ignores environmental problems

Rosatom is silent about the details of uranium mining in Russia’s three remaining mines. The 225-page annual report contains only production and key figures on uranium mining. No details were mentioned and certainly no problems.

Uranium expert Paul Robinson reports in the Uranium Atlas: “In some houses in the vicinity of uranium mines in Krasnokamensk, radon concentrations of up to 28,000 becquerels per cubic metre have been measured; this value is 190 times above the limit at which, for example in the USA, emergency measures are prescribed by law.”

Closed mines would not be cleaned up in Russia. Environmental protection organisations that wanted to secure them would be harassed by the state. The nuclear physicist Oleg Bodrov, for example, had to resign from the leadership of the organisation Green World in 2017 because he had campaigned for the decommissioning of all nuclear power plants in Russia and the cessation of uranium mining.

Import ban for Russia is not enough

While Rosatom is planning to build a total of 35 new nuclear power plants abroad – among others in Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Finland and Hungary – the EU Commission is being forced to act, explained Armin Simon of the anti-nuclear organisation .ausgestrahlt. Just a few weeks ago, the EU Commission had justified the inclusion of nuclear power and fossil gas in the EU taxonomy with supply security aspects, Simon said. “This justification has turned out to be false for all to see. Contrary to what is claimed, nuclear power does not contribute to security of supply.”

An import ban on nuclear fuel from Russia, as already demanded by the EU Parliament, falls short, he said. “The EU Commission must revise its position on this. Otherwise, the EU Parliament must pull the emergency brake,” Simon demanded.

BUND points out that despite the precarious situation, CDU/CSU politicians are calling for lifetime extensions for German nuclear power plants. For example, Bavaria’s Prime Minister “Markus Söder is conducting a grotesque sham debate,” said Olaf Bandt, Chairman of BUND. “His calls for nuclear power are a political and moral indictment in light of the nuclear threats from nuclear power plants in the war zone [in Ukraine] and Putin’s nuclear bomb threats.”

Critics as enemies of the state

In the authors’ view, obtaining the uranium needed in Europe from states other than Russia is not an alternative. The conditions under which the fuel is mined are precarious everywhere. In China, anyone who criticises uranium mining is considered an enemy of the state.

The activist and Nuclear Free Future Award winner Sun Xiaodi is mentioned as an example. He had run a warehouse at one of China’s largest mines and raised questions about health hazards and radiation exposure from 1988 onwards. After giving an interview to a French journalist in 2005, he was placed under house arrest. In 2009, Sun Xiaodi was sentenced to two years in a penal camp for inciting public opinion, according to reports by the medical organisation IPPNW.

Africa does not benefit from mining

Nowadays, active mines in Africa are found in Niger, Namibia and South Africa. Although Niger is the world’s eighth-largest uranium producer in terms of total historical mining, the population has not benefited from the boom since the 1960s. Today, the country is one of the poorest in the world. At the same time, about 152,000 tonnes of uranium with a current market price of about 40 billion US dollars were exported.

What has been left behind – mainly by the French nuclear company Areva – is radiating waste. In the areas surrounding the mines, the radiation levels in the water are in some cases ten to a hundred times higher than recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Roads have been built out of radiated rock debris. In the mining town of Arlit on the southern edge of the Sahara, 35 million tonnes of radioactive waste are lying around in the open. The background radiation there is 200 times higher. Nevertheless, three new mines are planned.

Under South Africa’s apartheid system, it was standard practice for decades that workers with suspicious symptoms of illness were given a last month’s pay and dismissed. There, uranium is only a by-product of gold mining. However, this was enough to make South Africa the most important uranium producer in Africa.

“Nuclear power contributes nothing to solving the climate crisis.”

The authors of the Uranium Atlas also warn against viewing nuclear power as a “climate saviour”, as is currently repeatedly suggested by interest groups and politicians. “Climate protection is currently the central argument for making nuclear power respectable again,” the Uranium Atlas states.

In its brochure “Nuclear Power and the Paris Agreement”, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims that nuclear power is also needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. With this justification, the EU Commission also wants to classify nuclear energy as sustainable in the EU taxonomy (in German).

From the authors’ point of view, however, these demands neglect the health and environmental dangers of uranium mining, the possibility of a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions and the still unresolved question of final storage. Horst Hamm, project manager of the Uranium Atlases, therefore declared: “Nuclear power contributes nothing to solving the climate crisis.” Moreover, the construction of new nuclear power plants is too expensive and too slow to make a difference to climate protection in the future, he said.

“Not even existing nuclear power plants are still able to compete with renewable energies, as the example of the USA in the Uranium Atlas shows,” Hamm added. Six US reactors are being shut down there ahead of schedule, and more are to follow. The nuclear industry had already been highly subsidised in the past decades and, from a purely economic point of view, was not viable.

New construction projects: Bottomless pit

Worldwide, one in eight new nuclear power plants was abandoned before it went into operation. The reason was often delays in completion and rising costs during construction. Examples include Chile, Indonesia, Jordan, Lithuania, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

However, there are also reactors in Europe whose commissioning has been delayed by years and whose costs continue to rise: The construction of the first European pressurised water reactor (EPR) in Olkiluoto, Finland, started in 2005 and was supposed to be finished in 2009. Now, in the course of 2022, with a delay of 13 years, regular generation of electricity is to begin there.

The new reactor in Flamanville, France has been under construction since 2007 and should be operational in 2012. Due to technical and industrial problems, it will now be commissioned in 2023 at the earliest. With projected costs of 19 billion euros, the power plant is expected to be six times as expensive as planned. The costs of the Finnish EPR have risen from an estimated 3 billion euros to almost 11 billion euros.

Renewables cheaper than nuclear power

When calculating the costs of nuclear power, items such as the removal of damage from uranium mining as well as the dismantling and final storage of contaminated waste must also be priced in. The latter, however, are difficult to quantify. According to the Uranium Atlas, the nuclear industry has “neither determined the true price of its business nor adequately illuminated its economic situation”. Instead, state subsidies have been paid again and again due to the interconnections with the construction of nuclear bombs and the maintenance of nuclear-powered submarines and warships.

According to calculations made by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in 2021, generating electricity with the help of nuclear fission is more expensive than almost any other method. Only energy from gas and hard coal costs even more per kilowatt-hour. The researchers calculated a price of 13.5 euro cents for a kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity. A kilowatt-hour from hard coal costs 15.5 cents and from gas 20.2 cents.

In contrast, energy production from renewable resources is in part significantly cheaper. The price of a kilowatt-hour from offshore wind turbines is only 9.7 cents, onshore 6.1 cents, and photovoltaic plants on open land in southern Germany produce the kilowatt-hour for 3.6 cents. In sunnier countries like oil-rich Saudi Arabia, it is even cheaper. There, a 600-megawatt solar project has been connected to the grid that generates the kilowatt-hour for 1.04 US cents.

The authors see the future of sustainable energy generation not in nuclear power, but in renewables like wind and solar. “Renewable energies are now cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear power plants, even if you don’t count their follow-up costs,” said Heinz Smital, nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace. Even old and depreciated plants often cannot keep up.

It is the 36th anniversary of the Chernobyl reactor disaster on 26 April 1986. Nevertheless, nuclear energy is once again being presented as the solution in Europe (in German) today. In light of this, BUND calls on the federal government to stand by its refusal to extend the operating lives of nuclear power plants and to complete the phase-out of nuclear power. (hcz)